Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Bullet the Blue Sky" by U2 (1987)

Kirsty MacColl, who in some way must be the Patron Saint of this blog and its sister 'Best Songs...', was invited to compile a track listing for U2's The Joshua Tree album. As the story goes, she started by listing the songs in order of her favourites: the one she liked best first, the one she liked second best after that, etc. She was then going to put together a track listing, but U2 apparently felt that her top-10 list worked well. Which explains why The Joshua Tree is probably the most top-heavy album in history, with all the noteworthy songs on side one. And, in my opinion, a big nasty blight in the middle of the rather decent songs on side one: 'Bullet the Blue Sky'.

Apparently, The Joshua Tree was where U2 stopped being grandstanding, chest-beating self-important politicoes and started writing personal songs. Ahem. Well, to that I can say two things: one, U2 will always be self-important. And two, we have this current song. Which is all about Uncle Sam and the bad things the American war machine does around the world. It's strident. It's aggressive. It has nothing to do with the gentle soul-searching otherwise on offer on the album.

That's okay. Nothing wrong with political music, and nothing wrong with changing up the tone of an album. The problem is just... Bono. Well, not 100%. It`s that drumbeat - fine on 'New Years Day', boring now. It's the faux 'anthemic' metallic feel of the song. The music is frustrating enough. But Bono on top of that is intolerable. It's the grunted vocals. It's the falsetto woo-hoos. It's the heavy-handed lyrics. And... and... and... it's the spoken section. Oh God... can anyone actually listen to the last two minutes of this song without feeling queasy? Not only are 'spoken sections' pretty much always terrible (even in doo-wop), but he intones this gibberish in an agonised half-whisper, half-groan. It's all silly nonsense like a high schooler's first attempts at writing poetry. The Edge uses his guitar to make some atonal noises while Bono catches his breath. And then he's back... run, run... into the arms... of America.

Ew. America, you should know better.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

"My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas (2005)

Why do people try to annoy? I mean, it is clear to all that this song is very, very annoying, right? There is nobody on the planet who could fail to see just how deeply annoying this song is, right?

I'm sorry. It might frustrate me as much as it does because the Black Eyed Peas are not talentless hacks. In fact, they started out quite promising, and I don't want to suggest that 'it all went pear-shaped when Fergie joined'. I don't think she bears the blame for the Black Eyed Peas' disturbing transformation from a hip sub-Fugees (or sub-A Tribe Called Quest, pre-Fergie) into a sales-at-any-cost pop juggernaut. I'm more tempted to blame, and the limited scope of his ambition.

This song is an ode to Fergie's breasts and buttocks. Or, as puts it, 'all that junk in (her) trunk'. Fergie is a relatively pretty girl, I guess. But singing about your 'lady parts' is really no way to impress any of the fellas that I know. It's tacky and crude. It might have been exempt from such an analysis if it exhibited a sense of self-deprecating humour. But alas, no. or if it does, perhaps I don't get the joke. Instead, it's bravado about how her body (and what kind of word is 'humps' or 'lady lumps' to describe body parts?) makes men spend money on her. A truly icky set of self-congratulatory lyrics that somehow failed to repulse people: disturbingly, this song was their breakthrough hit, as opposed to any of the more accomplished singles that preceded it. Was it the power of the musical accompaniment that made people overlook the lyrics? It's tough to imagine: Fergie's vocals have the cadence of a jump-rope rhyme, and the music is the most basic of Casio beats with a simple five-note melodic tag line every now and then. Just enough to keep the focus on the lyrics. Which are as inane as they are offensive.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

"One in a Million" by Guns 'n' Roses (1988)

I do like Guns 'n' Roses. There's a fair amount of their songs that I find listenable, and even a couple that I find enjoyable. It was a long time coming... when they were popular, when “Appetite for Destruction” was on turntables everywhere, I resisted. Crap heavy metal, I said. It took me years to wake up to thjeir genuine pleasures and to the fact that they are examples of a rather rare beast indeed: non-crap heavy metal.

But crap marketing ploys? GnR had 'em. Including the 'between albums EP', the quick and painless project hastily thrown together to keep the artist in the public eye while the artist is 'recuperating' or in some other way dormant. In this particular case, the EP in question, at 33 minutes longer than some albums, was thrown together by taking an older live EP and tacking four new acoustic songs on. 'Guns 'n Roses Unplugged' without the need to enter MTV's studios. The heavy metal acoustic ballad is a wildly erratic mini-genre, with a few excellent songs mixed in with a lot of tripe, but it sells gold and gives heavy metal dudes plenty of opportunity to seem sensitive for heavy metal chicks. The gold standard here is 'Patience', a rather pretty song not entirely destroyed by the horrors of on-record whistling.

But the remainder? Well, there's the allegedly funny homicidal 'Used to Love Her', and the present song. What about the present song? Well, let's put aside the endless apologies, justifications and explanations Axl Rose has given for it (including on the CD cover itself). Let's just stick for the moment with the lyrics themselves, and their attacks against black people, gay people and immigrants. (Police officers, too). Taken at face value, it's a screed against anyone different than Rose, blaming minorities for all kinds of things. It's an incredibly ugly bigoted tirade, and amazing to think it could have gotten as far as record stores without anyone stopping and saying, 'wait, what are we condoning here?' There's nothing good or bad to say about the music – it's quite irrelevant compared to the ugly vitriol Axl Rose spouts in an especially annoying shriek (and no ballad, either: it's rather uptempo).

And here's the thing: you can justify throwing around bigoted slurs all you like – you can defend your usage of the 'n' word by saying 'context matters'. You can defend your usage of the 'f' word by saying you respect a lot of gay people. You can claim to be playing a character. You can twist your face-value-ugly words into any direction you want, really – but when your fans are, by and large, white, straight and American-born, all you're doing is playing into their hands. All a homophobe takes from the song is 'Yay! Axl Rose is one of us!' All a racist hears is sympathy and a sense that his opinions are shared by others (even though the lyrics also make some vague repudiation of 'racists' that I don't really understand, while calling their singer a 'small town white boy').

The fact that Slash himself is black, and plays guitar on this song, only furthers my confusion about why it got made. Apparently he voiced his concerns, but still went ahead and allowed the song to be released. That makes no sense to me.

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

"I Love You" by Vanilla Ice (1990)

I've viewed a lot of 'worst songs ever' lists online and am surprised by how often I find "Ice Ice Baby" on the list. Surprised because in my opinion it's not half bad a song. I mean, it'll never make anyone's top ten, but it's hardly abhorrent. What I think is happening is that people are quite rightly condemning Robert Van Winkle, the charlatan responsible for the song under the name Vanilla Ice, and in so doing pointing their fingers at his most well-known song. But terrible acts can make good (or at least half-decent) songs, and to deny that is to pretend that Milli Vanilli's fall from grace in some way affects what a great song "Blame it on the Rain" is. Silliness.

Or look at it this way: Robert Van Winkle (I just love that name) has a discography of seven albums or more (several of which are in the 'nu-metal' genre, whatever that is). All of these albums are filled with music just as dire as your gut instinct tells you it must be. There's a very good chance that "Ice Ice Baby" is actually the best thing Van Winkle has ever done. So how can it show up on 'worst ever' lists, unless the lists devote themselves entirely to the Vanilla Ice oeuvre? (One album is attributed, hilariously, to "V-Ice".)

For truly dire, though, we need not go very far. "To the Extreme", Vanilla Ice's major label debut and home to that Queen-smapling track, contains the present song, "I Love You", a truly limp attempt at a romantic love ballad. Before listening to the two back to back, I was ready to describe this song as a weak take on LL Cool J's "I Need Love". The truth is, though, that the rather embarrassing "I Need Love" is still way better than this piece of work, which features back-up singers crooning random words from the lyrics, a cheesy drum machine beat, enough saxophone to shake a stick at (this song came out in 1990 but is a perfect example of the 1980s tendency to stick saxophones onto cheesy songs just to underline their cheesiness), and the piece de resistance: Vanilla Ice rapping in a whisper the shockingly pedestrian lyrics to this pathetic love-man ditty. I used the word 'limp' before, and I think it's the perfect word to describe this song: incredibly, disturbingly limp, and an embarrassment to anyone by any standards: so bad, and stop to marvel at this for a second, that it could even be seen as an embarrassment to Vanilla Ice's career. Just how bad is that?

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